Exiled to poverty-row Republic Pictures in 1949, Fritz Lang, the self-proclaimed “master of the unusual,” created House by the River, a shocking and mordant low-budget thriller. Like fellow cinema giants Orson Welles and John Ford, Lang enjoyed a freedom at Republic that allowed him to make a unique and truly personal film. In House by the River, Cahiers du Cinema declared, “Lang’s main erotic obsession is displayed more clearly than in any of his other films.”
Victorian ne’er-do-well Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward) assaults and murders his wife’s virginal housekeeper. With the reluctant assistance of loyal brother John (Lee Bowman), Stephen remorselessly consigns the girl’s corpse to the river. But as John’s affection for Stephen’s wife Marjorie (Jane Wyatt), police suspicion about the girl’s disappearance, and the depths of Stephen’s depravity all escalate, the river itself provokes a horrifying reunion between victim and murderer. By House by the River’s climax, “melodrama is transformed into a work of art [and] a moral nightmare” (Lang biographer Lotte Eisner).
Boasting an ingenious script by Spiral Staircase scribe Mel Dinelli and evocative photography by Edward Cronjager (I Wake Up Screaming), House by the River is a criminally underrated American Grand Guignol that belies its modest origins. —KINO
Born in Vienna in 1890, Fritz Lang was brought up in Viennese middle-class comfort by his Roman Catholic father Anton and his Jewish mother Paula Schleisinger who both hoped that young Fritz would become an architect. But like so many middle-class children of the new century, Lang was fascinated by the pulp and fantasy literature of his day, the art world both in and outside Vienna and a potent new form of entertainment that invited artistic scrutiny and craftsmanship, the motion picture. Though the teenaged Lang attended school as his parents wished, he secretly haunted the cafe’s and cabarets of Vienna and intended to become a painter like his idols Klimt and Schile. At aged 21 Lang’s yearning took him to Paris where he lived in Bohemian splendor until the outbreak of W.W.I. Returning to Vienna, Lang enlisted in the Austrian army where he repeatedly saw combat, was wounded at least three times and decorated twice.
It was while on leave recuperating from one of these wounds… read more
There is the somnabular momentum of corpses wandering in and out of drawing rooms talking of Michelangelo. The plot and dialogue may be creaky in this one, yet somehow it fits in a world where basements are filled with steamer trunks and penny farthing bicycles, and inquests conducted by one-eyed coroners [a stand-in for Lang?]
Here is yet another exploration of a criminal-minded writer by Lang in his noir era films. He really had something to say about the decadence of artists, which coincided with his period of being banished to the margins of the film industry.
Also: A new issue of frieze and more festival news.